The Grotesque as Sacred

1 06 2009


More notes on religious art

What makes an image sacred? People nowadays, who often do not tie beauty in with holiness (as proven by the various monstrosities produced by the modern church) can often come up with various mechanistic solutions to the question. Many would have us think that sacred imagery has to follow very explicit rules and patterns to be holy, and this is perhaps behind the resurgence of interest in “classical” Byzantine iconography, which can be seen in many of the more “upscale” churches. For others, the rules of Christian aestheics can become as complicated as a tract of Karl Rahner or Hans Urs von Balthasar, and still for others they can be traditions that we have lost long ago that it is imperative that we recover, and so on. For most, it can be a strange free for all where anything of a remotely religious subject matter can be considered “sacred”.
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Stalinist Icon

22 03 2009


St. Matrona of Moscow with good ol’ Uncle Joe. This icon actually hangs in a church somewhere in Russia. My former Trotskyist sensibility is incensed!

Expect a broader post on Eastern Orthodoxy later this week.

On religious imagery

28 07 2008

A comment of mine on the Thulcandra blog

To the idea that representing God the Father in a painting is “blasphemous”:

“Blasphemous” is a harsh word for it. I think the theological principle you are trying to assert is that Christ is the only revelation of God, and to represent Christ as anyone else other than the Man Jesus Christ is inappropriate. This I believe was the decision of the Council of Trullo in 692 that condemned Christ’s depiction as a Lamb. Needless to say, this council’s authority was never undisputed in the West. The theological premise behind this is of course a strong one (Jesus Christ as the ONLY icon of God), but the history of art, even sacred art, is never that cut and dry. While one can argue, for example, that even the Ancient of Days in the Book of Daniel is God the Son, such an understanding has not been consistent throughout Christian history.

The “hard and fast” theory of sacred art in Eastern Orthodoxy only emerged in the first half of last century with the work of Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky. In their minds, Eastern Orthodox iconography was equated to the Biblical canon and its unanimous Patristic exegesis. Icons were a tradition just as Christian dogma and morality are traditions, and any change to them is to be equated with heresy. I believe that is where the first responder is getting his idea that the image you posted is blasphemous. While these ideas may still be “on the books” in Russia and Greece, this did not stop iconographers from adopting modern Western styles and imagery in Eastern Orthodoxy up to very recently. Indeed, even in the halcyon days before the Western captivity of Eastern art, such strange images as the Word of God as Sophia and St. Christopher with a dog head were to be seen in Holy Orthodox Russia itself. It is hard to theologize upon spontaneous sentiments of artists, and as much as we would like to read into history our own ideas about it, it is seldom that neat.

As for the depiction of God the Father, such images appear even in the monasteries of Mount Athos, the sanctum sanctorum of Orthodoxy itself. There is one where God the Father is sitting in paradise with God the Son (a small child) on His lap, done in a very Byzantine style. And the Holy Spirit is always portrayed as a dove in the Theophany icon, and He is not God the Son. I think while the principle that the Word of God is the true revelation of God is something to always be kept in mind, it is not a reason to disparage other forms of art that are done devoutly. Nowhere have such rules been applied with universal rigor, and so a depiction of God the Father is not at all blasphemous. Maybe less correct, but not blasphemous.